The Etruscan Vase
The Etruscan Vase
Transcribed from The Works of Prosper Mérimée. Vol. 3. Trans Emily Mary Waller and Mary Helena Dey. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1906. For educational use only.
Auguste Saint-Clair was not at all a favourite in Society, the chief reason being that he only cared to please those who took his own fancy. He avoided the former and sought after the latter. In other respects he was absent-minded and indolent. One evening, on coming out of the Italian Opera, the Marquise A*** asked him his opinion on the singing of Mlle. Sontag. “Yes, Madam,” Saint-Clair replied, smiling pleasantly, and thinking of something totally different. This ridiculous reply could not be set down to shyness, for he talked with great lords and noted men and women and even with Society women with as much ease as though he were their equal. The Marquise put down Saint-Clair as a stupid, impertinent bore.
One Monday he had an invitation to dine with Madam B***. She paid him a good deal of attention, and on leaving her house, he remarked that he had never met a more agreeable woman. Madam B*** spent a month collecting witticisms at other people’s houses, which she dispensed in one evening at her own. Saint-Clair called upon her again on the Thursday of the same week. This time he grew a little tired of her. Another visit decided him never to enter her salon again. Madam B*** gave out that Saint-Clair was an ill-bred young man, and not good form.
He was naturally tender-hearted and affectionate, but at an age when lasting impressions are taken too easily. His too demonstrative nature had drawn upon him the sarcasm of his comrades. He was proud and ambitious, and stuck to his opinion like an obstinate child. Henceforth he made a point of hiding any outward sign of what might seem discreditable weakness. He attained his end, but the victory cost him dear. He learnt to hide his softer feelings from others, but the repression only increased their force a hundredfold. In Society he bore the sorry reputation of being heartless and indifferent; and, when alone, his relentless imagination conjured up hideous torments – all the worse because unshared.
How difficult it is to find a friend! Difficult! Is it possible to find two men anywhere who have not a secret from each other? That Saint-Clair had little faith in friendship was easily seen. With young Society people his manner was cold and reserved. He asked no questions about their secrets; and most of his actions and all his thoughts were mysteries to them. A Frenchman loves to talk of himself; therefore Saint-Clair was the unwilling recipient of many confidences. His friends – that is to say, those whom he saw about twice a week – complained of his indifference to their confidences. They felt that indiscretion should be reciprocal; for, indeed, he who confides his secret to us unasked generally takes offence at not learning ours in return.
“He keeps his thoughts to himself,” grumbled Alphonse de Thémines one day.
“I could never place the least confidence in that deuced Saint-Clair,” added the smart colonel.
“I think he is half a Jesuit,” replied Jules Lambert. “Someone swore to me that he had met him twice coming out of St. Sulpice. Nobody knows what he thinks about. I must say I never feel at ease with him.”
They separated. Alphonse encountered Saint-Clair in the Boulevard Italien. He was walking with his eyes on the ground, not noticing anyone. Alphonse stopped him, took his arm, and, before they had reached the Rue de la Paix, he had related to him the whole history of his love affairs with Madam ***, whose husband was so jealous and so violent.
The same evening Jules Lambert lost his money at cards. After that he thought he had better go and dance. While dancing, he accidentally knocked against a man, who had also lost his money and was in a very bad temper. Sharp words followed, and a challenge was given and taken. Jules begged Saint-Clair to act as his second, and, at the same time, borrowed money from him, which he was never likely to return.
After all, Saint-Clair was easy enough to live with. He was no one’s enemy but his own; he was obliging, often genial, rarely tiresome; he had travelled much and read much, but never obtruded his knowledge or his experiences unasked. In personal appearance he was tall and well made; he had a dignified and refined expression – almost always too grave, but his smile was pleasing and very attractive.
I am forgetting one important point. Saint-Clair paid attention to all women, and sought their society more than that of men. It was difficult to say whether he was in love; but if this reserved being felt love, the beautiful Countess Mathilde de Coursy was the woman of his choice. She was a young widow, at whose house he was often seen. To prove their friendship there was the evidence first of the almost exaggerated politeness of Saint Clair toward the Countess, and vice versâ; then his habit of never pronouncing her name in public, or if obliged to speak of her, never with the slightest praise; also, before Saint-Clair was introduced to her, he had been passionately fond of music, and the Countess equally so of painting. Since they had become acquainted their tastes had changed. Lastly, when the Countess visited a health resort the previous year, Saint-Clair followed her in less than a week.
. . . . . .
My duty as novelist obliges me to reveal that early one morning in the month of July, a few moments before sunrise, the garden gate of a country house opened, and a man crept out with the stealthiness of a burglar fearing discovery. This country house belonged to Madam de Coursy, and the man was Saint-Clair. A woman muffled in a cape, came to the gate with him, stood with her head out and watched him as long as she could, until he was far along the path which led by the park wall. Saint-Clair stopped, looked round cautiously, and signed with his hand for the woman to go in. The clearness of a summer dawn enabled him to distinguish her pale face. She stood motionless where he had left her. He went back to her, and took her tenderly in his arms. He meant to compel her to go in; but he had still a hundred things to say to her. Their conversation lasted ten minutes, till at last they heard the voice of a peasant going to his work in the fields. One more kiss passed between them, the gate was shut, and Saint-Clair with a bound reached the end of the footpath. He followed a track evidently well known to him, and ran along, striking the bushes with his stick and almost jumping for joy. Sometimes he stopped, or sauntered slowly, looking at the sky, which was flushed in the east with purple. In fact, anyone meeting him would have taken him for an escaped lunatic. After half an hour’s walk he reached the door of a lonely little house which he had rented for the season. He let himself in with a key, and then, throwing himself on the couch, he fell into a day-dream, with vacant eyes and a happy smile playing on his lips. His mind was filled with bright reflections. “How happy I am!” he kept repeating. “At last I have met a heart that understands mine… Yes, I have found my ideal… I have gained at the same time a friend and a lover… What depth of soul!… What character!… No, she has never loved anyone before me.” How soon vanity creeps into human affairs! “She is the loveliest woman in Paris,” he thought, and his imagination conjured up all her charms. “She has chosen me before all the others. She had the flower of Society at her feet. That colonel of hussars, gallant, good-looking and not too stout; that young author, who paints in water-colours so well, and who is such a capital actor; that Russian Lovelace, who has been in the Balkan campaign and served under Diébitch; above all, Camille T***, who is brilliantly clever, has good manners and a fine sabre-cut across his forehead… She has dismissed them all for me!…” Then came the refrain – “Oh, how happy I am! how happy I am!” and he got up and opened the window, for he could scarcely breathe. First he walked about; then he tossed on his couch.
A happy lover is almost as tedious as an unhappy one. One of my friends, who is generally in one or the other of these conditions, found that the only way of getting any attention was to give me an excellent breakfast, over which he could unburden himself on the subject of his amours. When the coffee was finished he was obliged to choose a totally different topic of conversation.
As I cannot give breakfast to all my readers, I make them a present of Saint-Clair’s ecstasies. Besides, it is impossible always to live in cloudland. Saint-Clair was tired; he yawned, stretched his arms, saw that it was broad day and at last slept. When he awoke he saw by his watch that he had hardly time to dress and rush off to Paris, to attend a luncheon-party of several of his young friends.
. . . . . .
They had just uncorked another bottle of champagne. I leave my readers to guess how many had preceded it. It is sufficient to know that they had reached that stage which comes quickly enough at a young men’s dinner-party, when everybody speaks at once, and when the steady heads get anxious for those who cannot carry so much.
“I wish,” said Alphonse de Thémines, who had never missed a chance of talking about England – “I wish that it was the custom in Paris, as it is in London, for each one to propose a toast to his mistress. If it were we should find out for whom our friend Saint-Clair sighs.” And, while uttering these words, he filled up his own glass and those of his neighbours.
Saint-Clair felt slightly embarrassed, but was about to reply when Jules Lambert prevented him.
“I heartily approve this custom,” he said, raising his glass; “and I adopt it. To all the milliners of Paris, with the exception of those past thirty, the one-eyed and the lame.”
“Hurrah! hurrah!” shouted the anglomaniacs. Saint-Clair rose, glass in hand.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “I have not such a large heart as our friend Jules, but it is more constant – a constancy all the more faithful since I have been long separated from the lady of my thoughts. Nevertheless I am sure that you will approve of my choice, even if you are not already my rivals. To Judith Pasta, gentlemen! May we soon welcome back the firsttragédienne of Europe.”
Thémines was about to criticise the toast, but was interrupted by acclamation. Saint-Clair having parried the thrust, believed himself safe for the rest of the day.
The conversation turned first to theatres. From the criticism of the drama they wandered to political topics. From the Duke of Wellington they passed to English horses. From English horses to women, by a natural connection of ideas; for, to young men, a good horse first, and then a beautiful mistress, are the two most desirable objects.
Then they discussed the means of acquiring these coveted treasure. Horses are bought, women are also bought; only we do not so talk of them. Saint-Clair, after modestly pleading inexperience in this delicate subject, gave as his opinion that the chief way to please a woman is to be singular, to be different from others. But he did not think it possible to give a general prescription for singularity.
“According to your view,” said Jules, “a lame or hump-backed woman would have a better chance of pleasing than one of ordinary make.”
“You push things too far,” retorted Saint-Clair, “but I am willing to accept all the consequences of my proposition. For example, if I were hump-backed, instead of blowing out my brains I would make conquests. In the first place I would try my wiles on those who are generally tender-hearted; then on those women – and there are many of them – who set up for being original – eccentric, as they say in England. To begin with, I should describe my pitiful condition, and point out that I was the victim of Nature’s cruelty. I should try to move them to sympathy with my lot, I should let them suspect that I was capable of a passionate love. I should kill one of my rivals in a duel, and I should pretend to poison myself with a feeble dose of laudanum. After a few months they would not notice my deformity, and then I should be on the watch for the first signs of affection. With women who aspire to originality conquest is easy. Only persuade them that it is a hard-and-fast rule that a deformed person can never have a love affair, they will immediately then wish to prove the opposite.”
“What a Don Juan!” cried Jules.
“As we have not had the misfortune of being born deformed,” said Colonel Beaujeu, “we had better get our legs broken, gentlemen.”
“I fully agree with Saint-Clair,” said Hector Roquantin, who was only three and a half feet high. “We constantly see beautiful and fashionable women giving themselves to men whom you fine fellows would never dream of.”
“Hector, just ring the bell for another bottle, will you?” said Thémines casually.
The dwarf got up and everyone smiled, recalling the fable of the fox without a tail.
“As for me,” said Thémines, renewing the conversation, “the longer I live, the more clearly I see that the chief singularity which attracts even the most obdurate, is passable features” – and he threw a complaisant glance in a mirror opposite – “passable features and good taste in dress,” and he filliped a crumb of bread off his coat.
“Bah!” cried the dwarf, “with good looks and a coat by Staub, there are plenty of women to be had for a week at a time, but we should be tired of them at the second meeting. More than that is needed to win what is called love… You must…”
“Stop!” interrupted Thémines. “Do you want an apt illustration? You all know what kind of man Massigny was. Manners like an English groom, and no more conversation than his horse… But he was as handsome as Adonis, and could tie his cravat like Brummel. Altogether he was the greatest bore I have ever met.”
“He almost killed me with weariness,” said Colonel Beaujeu. “Only think, I once had to travel two hundred leagues with him!”
“Did you know,” asked Saint-Clair, “that he caused the death of poor Richard Thornton, whom you all knew?”
“But,” objected Jules, “I thought he was assassinated by brigands near Fondi?”
“Granted; but Massigny was at all events an accomplice in the crime. A party of travellers, Thornton among them, had arranged to go to Naples together to avoid attacks from brigands. Massigny asked to be allowed to join them. As soon as Thornton heard this, he set out before the others, apparently to avoid being long with Massigny. He started alone, and you know the rest.”
“Thornton took the only course,” said Thémines; “he chose the easiest of two deaths. We should all have done the same in his place.” Then, after a pause, “You grant me,” he went on, “that Massigny was the greatest bore on earth?”
“Certainly,” they all cried with one accord.
“Don’t let us despair,” said Jules; “let us make an exception in favour of… especially when he divulges his political intrigues.”
“You will next grant me,” continued Thémines, “that Madam de Coursy is as clever a woman as can be found anywhere.”
A moment’s silence followed. Saint-Clair looked down and fancied that all eyes were fixed on himself.
“Who disputes it?” he said at length, still bending over his plate apparently to examine more closely the flowers painted in the china.
“I maintain,” said Jules, raising his voice – “I maintain that she is one of the three most fascinating women in Paris.”
“I knew her husband,” said the Colonel, “he often showed me her charming letters.”
“Auguste,” interrupted Hector Roquantin, “do introduce me to the Countess. They say you can do anything with her.”
“When she returns to Paris at the end of autumn, …” murmured Saint-Clair, “I – I believe she does not entertain visitors in the country.”
“Will you listen to me?” exclaimed Thémines.
Silence was restored. Saint-Clair fidgeted upon his chair like a prisoner before his judges.
“You did not know the Countess three years ago because you were then in Germany, Saint-Clair,” went on Alphone de Thémines, with aggravating coolness. “You cannot form any idea, therefore, of her as she was then; lovely, with the freshness of a rose, and as light-hearted as a butterfly. Perhaps you do not know that among all her many admirers Massigny was the one she honoured with her favours? The most stupid and ridiculous of men turned the head of the most fascinating amongst women. Do you suppose that a deformed person could have done as much? Nonsense; believe me, with a good figure and a first-rate tailor, only boldness in addition is needed.”
Saint-Clair was in a most awkward position. He longed to fling back the lie direct in the speaker’s face, but was restrained from fear of compromising the Countess. He would have liked to have said something to defend her, but he was tongue-tied. His lips trembled with rage, and he tried to find some indirect means of forcing a quarrel, but could not.”
“What,” exclaimed Jules, with astonishment, “Madam de Coursy gave herself to Massigny? Frailty, thy name is woman!”
“The reputation of a woman being of such small moment, it is, of course, allowable to pull it to pieces for the sake of a little sport,” observed Saint-Clair in a dry and scornful tone, “and – ”
But as he spoke he remembered with dismay a certain Etruscan vase that he had noticed a hundred times upon the mantelpiece in the Countess’s house in Paris. He knew that it was a gift from Masssigny, who had brought it back with him from Italy; and – overwhelming coincidence! – it had been taken by the Countess from Paris to her country house. Every evening when Mathilde took the flowers out of her dress, she put them in this Etruscan vase.
Speech died upon his lips. He could neither see nor think of anything but of that Etruscan vase.
“How absurd,” cries a critic, “to suspect his mistress from such a trifle!”
“Have you ever been in love, my dear critic?”
Thémines was in too good a humour to take offence at the tone Saint-Clair had used when speaking to him, and replied lightly and with great good nature –
“I can only repeat what I heard in Society. It passed as a true story while you were in Germany. However, I scarcely know Madam de Coursy. It is eighteen months since I was at her house. Very likely I am wrong, and the story was a fabrication of Massigny’s. But let us return to our discussion. For whether my illustration be false or not does not affect my point. You all know that the cleverest woman in France, whose works – ”
The door opened, and Théodore Néville came in. He had just returned from Egypt.
“Théodore, you have soon come back!” He was overwhelmed with questions.
“Have you brought back a real Turkish costume?” asked Thémines. “Have you got an Arabian horse and an Egyptian groom?”
“What sort of man is the Pasha?” said Jules. “When will he make himself independent? Have you seen a head cut off with a single stroke of the sabre?”
“And the almées,” said Roquantin. “Are the Cairo women beautiful?”
“Did you meet General L***?” asked Colonel Beaujeu. “Has he organised the army of the Pasha? Did Colonel C*** give you a sword for me?”
“And the Pyramids? The cataracts of the Nile? And the statue of Memnon? Ibrahim Pasha?” etc. They all talked at once; Saint-Clair only brooded on the Etruscan vase.
Théodore sat cross-legged. He had learnt that habit in Egypt, and did not wish to lose it in France. He waited till his questioners were tired, and then spoke as fast as he could to save himself from being easily interrupted.
“The Pyramids! upon my word they are a regular humbug. They are not so high as I expected. The Strasburg Cathedral is only four yards lower. I passed by the antiquities. Do not talk to me about them. The very sight of hieroglyphics makes me faint. There are plenty of travellers who worry themselves over these things! My object was to study the nature and manners of all the strange people that jostle against each other in the streets of Alexandria and of Cairo. Turks, Bedouins, Copts, Fellahs, Môghrebins. I drew up a few hasty notes when I was in the quarantine hospital. What infamous places they are! I hope none of you fellows are nervous about infection! I smoked my pipe calmly in the midst of three hundred plague-stricken people. Ah! Colonel, you would admire the well-mounted cavalry out there. I must show you some superb weapons that I have brought back. I have a djerid which belonged to a famous Mourad Bey. I have a yataghan for you, Colonel, and a khandjar for Auguste. You must see my metchlâ and bournous and hhaick. Do you know I could have brought back any number of women with me? Ibrahim Pasha has such numbers imported from Greece that they can be had for nothing… But I had to think of my mother’s feelings… I talked much with the Pasha. He is a thoroughly intelligent and unprejudiced man. You would hardly credit it, but he knows everything about our affairs. Upon my honour, he knows the smallest secrets of our Cabinet. I gleaned much valuable information from him on the state of parties in France… Just now he is taken up with statistics. He subscribes to all our papers. Would you believe it? – he is a pronounced Bonapartist, and talks of nothing but Napoleon. ‘Ah! what a great man Bounabardo was!’ he said to me; ‘Bounabardo,’ that is how he pronounces Bonaparte.”
“Giourdina, meaning Jourdain,” murmured Thémines.
“At first,” continued Théodore, “Mohamed Ali was extremely reserved with me. All the Turks are very suspicious, you know, and he took me for a spy, or a Jesuit, the devil he did! He had a perfect horror of Jesuits. But, after several visits, he recognised that I was an unprejudiced traveller, anxious to inform myself at first hand of Eastern manners, customs and politics. Then he unbosomed himself and spoke freely to me. At the third and last audience he granted me I ventured to ask His Excellency why he did not make himself independent of the Porte. ‘By Allah!’ he replied, ‘I wish it indeed, but I fear the Liberal papers which govern your country would not support me if I proclaimed the independence of Egypt.’ He is a fine old man, with a long white beard. He never smiles. He gave us some first-rate confections; but the gift that pleased him most of all I offered him was a collection of costumes of the Imperial Guard by Charlet.”
“Is the Pasha of a romantic turn of mind?” asked Thémines.
He does not trouble himself much about literature; but you know, of course, that Arabian literature is entirely romantic. They have a poet called Melek Ayatalnefous-Ebn-Esraf, who has recently published a book of Meditations, compared with which Lamartine’s read like classic prose. I took lessons in Arabic directly I got to Cairo, in order to read the Koran. I did not need to have many lessons before I was able to judge of the supreme beauty of the prophet’s style, and of the baldness of all our translations. Look here, would you like to see Arabian handwriting? This word in gold letters is Allah, which means God.”
As he spoke he showed them a very dirty letter, which he took out of a scented silk purse.
“How long were you in Egypt?” asked Thémines.
And the traveller proceeded to hold forth on everything from beginning to end. Saint-Clair left soon after his arrival, and went in the direction of his country house. The impetuous gallop of his horse prevented him from thinking consecutively, but he felt vaguely that his happiness in life had gone forever and that it had been shattered by a dead man and an Etruscan vase.
After reaching home he threw himself on the same couch upon which he had dreamed for so long and so deliciously, and analysed his happiness the evening before. His most cherished dream had been that his mistress was different from other women, that she had not loved nor ever would love anyone but himself. Now this exquisite dream must perish in the light of a sad and cruel reality. “I have had a beautiful mistress, but nothing more. She is clever; she is therefore all the more to be blamed for loving Massigny!… I know she does love me now… with her whole soul… as she can love. But to be loved in the same fashion as Massigny has been loved!… She has yielded herself up to my attentions, my importunities, my whims. But I have been deceived. There has been no sympathy between us. Whether her lover were Massigny, or myself, was equally the same to her. He is handsome and she loves him for his good looks. She amuses herself with me for a time. ‘I may as well love Saint-Clair,’ she says to herself, ‘since the other is dead! And if Saint-Clair dies, or I tire of him, who knows?’
“I firmly believe the devil listens invisible behind a tortured wretch like myself. The enemy of mankind is tickled by the spectacle, and as soon as the victim’s wounds begin to heal, the devil is waiting to reopen them.”
Saint-Clair thought he heard a voice murmur in his ears –
“The peculiar honour… Of being the successor…”
He sat up on the couch and threw a savage glance round him. How glad he would have been to find someone in his room! He would have torn him limb from limb without any hesitation.
The clock struck eight. At eight-thirty the Countess expected him. Should he disappoint her? Why, indeed, should he ever see Massigny’s mistress again? He lay down again on the couch and shut his eyes. “I will try to sleep,” he said. He lay still for half a minute, then he leapt to his feet and ran to the clock to see how the time was going. “How I wish it were half-past eight!” he thought. “It would be too late then for me to start.” If only he were taken ill. He had not the courage to stop at home unless he had an excuse. He walked up and down his room, then he sat down and took a book, but he could not read a syllable. He sat down in front of his piano, but had not enough energy to open it. He whistled; then he looked out of his window at the clouds, and tried to count the poplars. At length he looked at the clock again, and saw that he had not succeeded in whiling away more than three minutes. “I cannot help loving her,” he burst out, grinding his teeth and stamping his feet; “she rules me, and I am her slave, just as Massigny was before me. Well, since you have not sufficient courage to break the hated chain, poor wretch, you must obey.”
He picked up his hat and rushed out.
When we are carried away by a great passion it is some consolation to our self-love to look down from the height of pride upon our weakness. “I certainly am weak,” he said to himself; “but what if I wish to be so?”
As he walked slowly up the footpath which led to the garden gate, he could see in the distance a white face standing out against the dark background of trees. She beckoned to him with her handkerchief. His heart beat violently, and his knees trembled under him; he could not speak, and he had become so nervous that he feared lest the Countess should read his ill-humour.
He took the hand she held out to him, and kissed her brow, because she threw herself into his arms. He followed her into her sitting-room in silence, though scarce able to suppress his bursting sighs.
A single candle lighted the Countess’s room. They sat down, and Saint-Clair noticed his friend’s coiffure; a single rose was in her hair. He had given her, the previous evening, a beautiful English engraving of Leslie’s “Duchess of Portland” (whose hair was dressed in the same fashion), and Saint-Clair had merely remarked to the Countess, “I like that single rose better than all your elaborate coiffures.” He did not like jewels, and inclined to the opinion of a noble lord who once remarked coarsely, “The devil has nothing left to teach women who overdress themselves and coil their hair fantastically.” The night before, while playing with the Countess’s pearl necklace (he always would have something between his hands when talking), Saint-Clair had said, “You are too pretty, Mathilde, to wear jewels; they are only meant to hide defects.” Tonight the Countess had stripped herself of rings, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, for she stored up his most trivial remarks. He noticed, above everything else in woman’s toilet, the shoes she wore; and, like any other man, he was quite mad on this point. A heavy shower had fallen at sunset, and the grass was still very wet; in spite of this the Countess walked on the damp lawn in silk stockings and black satin slippers… Suppose she were to take cold?
“She loves me,” Saint-Clair said to himself.
He sighed at his folly, but smiled at Mathilde in spite of himself, tossed between his sorry mood and the gratification of seeing a pretty woman, who had sought, by those trifles which have such priceless value in the eyes of lovers, to please him.
The Countess was radiant with love, playfully mischievous and bewitchingly charming. She took something from a Japanese lacquered box and held it out to him in her little firmly closed hand.
“I broke your watch the other night,” she said; “here it is, mended.”
She handed the watch to him and looked at him tenderly, and yet mischievously, biting her lower lip as though to prevent herself from laughing. Oh, what beautiful white teeth she had! and how they gleamed against the ruby red of her lips! (A man looks exceedingly foolish when he is being teased by a pretty woman, and replies coldly.)
Saint-Clair thanked her, took the watch and was about to put it in his pocket.
“Look at it and open it,” she continued. “See if it is mended all right. You, who are so learned, you, who have been to the Polytechnic School, ought to be able to tell that.”
“Oh, I didn’t learn much there,” said Saint-Clair.
He opened the case in an absent-minded way, and what was his surprise to find a miniature portrait of Madam de Coursy painted on the interior of the case? How could he sulk any longer? His brow cleared; he thought no longer of Massigny; he only remembered that he was by the side of a beautiful woman, and that this woman loved him.
. . . . . .
“The lark, that harbinger of dawn,” began to sing, and long bands of pale light stretched across the eastern clouds. At such an hour did Romeo say farewell to Juliet, and it is the classic hour when all lovers should part.
Saint-Clair stood before a mantelpiece, the key of the garden gate in his hand, his eyes intently fixed on the Etruscan vase, of which we have already spoken. In the depths of his soul he still bore it a grudge, although he was in a much better humour. The simple explanation occurred to his mind that Thémines might have lied about it. While the Countess was wrapping a shawl round her head in order to go to the garden gate with him he began to tap the detested vase with the key, at first gently, then gradually increasing the force of his blows until it seemed as though he would soon smash it to atoms.
“Oh, do be careful!” Mathilde exclaimed. “You will break my beautiful Etruscan vase!”
She snatched the key out of his hands.
Saint-Clair was very angry, but he resigned himself and turned his back on the chimney-piece to avoid temptation. Opening his watch, he began to examine the portrait that had just been given him.
“Who painted it?” he asked.
“Monsieur R***, and it was Massigny who introduced him to my notice (After Massigny had been in Rome he discovered that he had exquisite taste in art, and constituted himself the Macænas of all young painters.) I really think the portrait is like me, though it is a little too flattering.”
Saint-Clair had a burning desire to fling the watch against the wall, to break it beyond all hope of mending. He controlled himself, however, and put the watch in his pocket. Then he noticed that it was daylight, and, entreating Mathilde not to come out with him, he left the house and crossed the garden with rapid strides, and was soon alone in the country.
“Massigny! Massigny!” he burst forth with concentrated rage. “Can I never escape him?… No doubt the artist who painted this portrait painted another for Massigny… What a fool I am to imagine for a moment that I am loved with a love equal to my own!… just because she put aside her jewels and wore a rose in her hair!… Jewels! why, she has a chest full… Massigny, who thought of little else save a woman’s toilet, was a lover of jewellery!… Yes, she has a gracious nature, it must be granted; she knows how to gratify the tastes of her lovers. Damn it! I would rather a hundred times that she were a courtesan and gave herself for money. Just because she was my mistress and unpaid I thought she loved me indeed.”
Soon another still more unhappy idea presented itself. In a few weeks’ time the Countess would be out of mourning, and Saint-Clair had promised to marry her as soon as her year of widowhood was over. He had promised. Promised? No. He had never spoken of it, but such had been his intention and the Countess had understood it so. But for him this was as good as an oath. Last night he would have given a throne to hasten the time for acknowledging his love publicly; now the very thought of marrying the former mistress of Massigny filled him with loathing.
“Nevertheless, I owe it to her to marry her,” he said to himsef, “and it shall be done. No doubt she thinks, poor woman, I heard all about her former liason; it seems to have been generally known. Besides, she did not then know me… She cannot understand me; she thinks that I am only such another lover as Massigny.”
Then he said to himself, and not without a certain pride –
“For three months she has made me the happiest man living; such happiness is worth the sacrifice of my life.”
He did not go to bed, but rode about among the woods the whole of the morning. In one of the pathways of the woods of Verrières he saw a man mounted on a fine Enlgish horse, who called him immediately by his name while he was still far off. It was Alphonse de Thémines. To a man in Saint-Clair’s state of mind solitude is particularly desirable, and this encounter with Thémines changed his bad humour into a furious temper. Thémines did not notice his mood, or perhaps took a wicked pleasure in thwarting it. He talked and laughed and joked without noticing that he did not receive any response. Saint-Clair soon tried to turn his horse aside into a narrow track, hoping the bore would not follow him; but it was of no use, bores do not leave their prey so easily. Thémines pulled the bridle in the same direction, increased his horse’s pace to keep by Saint-Clair’s side and complacently continued the conversation.
I have said that the path was a narrow one. The two horses could hardly walk abreast. It was not, therefore, to be wondered at that even so good a horseman as Thémines should graze against Saint-Clair’s foot as he walked along with him. This put the finishing touch to his anger, and he could not contain himself any longer. He rose in his stirrups and struck Thémines’ horse sharply across the nose with his whip.
“What the devil is the matter with you, Auguste?” cried Thémines. “Why do you strike my horse?”
“Why do you pursue me?” roared Saint-Clair.
“Have you lost your senses, Saint-Clair? You forget to whom you are talking.”
“I know quite well that I am talking to a puppy.”
“Saint-Clair!… you must be mad, I think… Listen to me. Tomorrow you will either apologise to me, or you will account for your insolent conduct.”
“Tomorrow, then, sir – ”
Thémines stopped his horse; Saint-Clair pushed his on, and very soon disappeared among the trees.
He was calmer now. He was silly enough to believe in presentiments. He felt sure he would be killed on the morrow, and that would be a suitable ending to his condition. Only one more day of anxieties and torments to endure. He went home and sent a note by his servant to Colonel Beaujeu. He wrote several letters, after which he dined with a good appetite, and was promptly at the little garden gate by 8:30.
. . . . . .
“What is the matter with you today, Auguste?” said the Countess. “You are unusually lively, and yet your gaiety does not move me to laugh. Last night you were just a trifle dull, and I was the light-hearted one! We have changed parts today. I have a racking headache.”
“Dear one, I admit it. Yes, I was very tedious yesterday, but today I have been out, I took exercise, and I feel quite excited.”
“On the other hand, I overslept myself this morning, and rose late. I had bad dreams.”
“Ah! dreams? Do you believe in dreams?”
“I believe in them. I am sure that you had a dream which foretold some tragic event.”
“Good heavens! I never remember my dreams. Once I recollect… that I saw Massigny in my dream; so, you see, it was not very entertaining.”
“Massigny! But I should have thought you would have been pleased at seeing him again!”
“Why ‘poor Massigny’?”
“Please tell me, Auguste, what is wrong with you tonight. Your smile is perfectly diabolic, and you seem to be making game of yourself.”
“Ah! now you are treating me as badly as your old dowager friends treat me.”
“Yes, Auguste, you wear the same expression today that you put on before people whom you do not like.”
“That is unpardonable in me. Come, give me your hand.”
He kissed her hand with ironical gallantry, and they gazed at each other studiously for a minute. Saint-Clair was the first to drop his eyes.
“How difficult it is,” he exclaimed, “to live in this world without being thought ill of! One ought really never to talk of anything but the weather and hunting, or eagerly to discuss with your old friends the reports of their benevolent societies.”
He picked up a paper from the table near him.
“Come, here is your lace-cleaner’s bill. Let us discuss that, sweetheart; then you cannot say I am ill-tempered.”
“Really, Auguste, you amaze me…”
“This handwriting puts me in mind of a letter I found this morning. I must explain that I have fits of untidiness occasionally, and I was arranging my papers. Well, then, I found a love letter from a dressmaker with whom I fell in love at sixteen. She had a trick of writing each word most fantastically, and her style was equal to her writing. Well, I was foolish enough then to be vexed that my mistress could not write as well as Madame de Sévigné, and I left her abruptly. In reading over this letter today I see that this dressmaker really did love me.”
“Really! a woman whom you kept?”
“In fine style on fifty francs a month. But I could not afford more, as my guardian only allowed me a little money at the time, for he said that youths who had money ruined themselves and others.”
“What became of this woman?”
“How should I know?… Probably she died in a hospital.”
“Auguste,… if that were true you would not speak so flippantly.”
“Well, then, to tell you the truth, she is married to a respectable man, and when I came of age I gave her a small dowry.”
“How good of you!… But why do you try to make yourself out so evil?”
“”Oh, I am good enough… The more I think of it the more I persuade myself that this woman really did care for me… But on the other hand, it is difficult to discern true feeling under such a ridiculous expression of it.”
“You ought to have shown me your letter. I should not have been jealous… We women have finer tact than you, and we can tell at a glance, from the style of a letter, whether the writer is sincere, or feigning a passion he does not really feel.”
“But what a number of times you have allowed yourself to be taken in by fools and rogues!”
As he spoke he looked at the Etruscan vase with a threatening glance, to which his voice responded, but Mathilde went on without noticing anything.
“Come, now, all you men wish to pose as Don Juans. You fancy you are making dupes when often you have encountered only Doña Juana, who is much more cunning than yourselves.”
“I perceive that with your superior wit you ladies scent out rakes in every place. I doubt not also that our friend Massigny, who was both a stupid and a coxcomb, became, when dead, spotless and a martyr.”
“Massigny? He was not a fool; then too there are silly women to be found. I must tell you a story about Massingy. But surely have I not told it you already?”
“Never,” replied Saint-Clair tremblingly.
“Massigny fell in love with me after his return from Italy. My husband knew him and introduced him to me as a man of taste and culture. Those two were just made for each other. Massigny was most attentive to me from the first; he gave me some water-colour sketches which he had bought from Schroth, as his own paintings, and talked of music and art in the most divertingly superior manner. One day he sent me an incredibly ridiculous letter. He said, among other things, that I was the best woman in Paris; therefore he wished to be my lover. I showed the letter to my cousin Julie. We were then both very silly, and we resolved to play him a trick. One evening we had several visitors, among them being Massigny. My cousin said to me, ‘I am going to read you a declaration of love which I received this morning.’ She took the letter and read it amidst peals of laughter… Poor Massigny!…”
Saint-Clair fell on his knees uttering a cry of joy. He seized the Countess’s hand and covered it with tears and kisses. Mathilde was surprised beyond measure, and thought at first he had gone mad. Saint-Clair could only murmur, “Forgive me! forgive me!” When he rose to his feet he was radiant; he was happier than on the day when Mathilde had said to him for the first time, “I love you.”
“I am the guiltiest and most stupid of men,” he cried; “for two days I have misjudged you… and never given you a chance to clear yourself…”
“You suspected me?… And of what?”
“Oh! idiot that I was!… they told me you had loved Massigny, and – ”
“Massigny!” and she began to laugh; then soon quickly growing more earnest, “Auguste,” she said, “how could you be so foolish as to harbour such suspicions, and so hypocritical as to hide them from me?”
Her eyes filled with tears.
“I implore you to forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you, beloved… but let me first swear…”
“Oh! I believe you, I believe you; do not say any more about it.”
“But in Heaven’s name what put such an improbable notion in your head?”
“Nothing, nothing in the world except my accursed temper… and … would you believe it? that Etruscan vase which I knew Massigny had given you.”
The Countess clasped her hands together in amazement, and then she burst into shouts of laughter.
“My Etruscan vase! My Etruscan vase!”
Saint-Clair was obliged to join in the laughter himself, although great tears rolled down his cheeks. He seized Mathilde in his arms. “I will not let you go,” he said, “until you pardon me.”
“Yes, I forgive you, though you are so foolish,” she replied, kissing him tenderly. “You make me very happy today; it is the first time I have seen you shed tears, and I thought that you could not weep.”
Then she struggled from his embrace, and, snatching the Etruscan vase, broke it into a thousand pieces on the floor. It was a valuable and unique work, painted in three colours, and represented the fight between a Lapithe and a Centaur.
For several hours Saint-Clair was the happiest and the most ashamed of men.
. . . . . .
“Well,” said Roquantin to Colonel Beaujeu, when he met him in the evening at Tortoni’s, “is this news true?”
“Too true, my friend,” answered the Colonel sadly.
“Tell me, how did it come about?”
“Oh! just as it should. Saint-Clair began by telling me he was in the wrong, but that he wished to draw Thémines’ fire before begging his pardon. I could do no other than accede. Thémines wished to draw lots who should fire first. Saint-Clair insisted that Thémines should. Thémines fired; and I saw Saint-Clair turn round once and then fall stone dead. I have often remarked, in the case of soldiers when they have been shot, this strange turning round which precedes death.”
“How very extraordinary!” said Roquantin. “But Thémines, what did he do?”
“Oh, what is usual on these occasions: he threw his pistol on the ground remorsefully, with such force that he broke the hammer. It was an English pistol of Manton’s. I don’t believe there is a gunmaker in Paris who could make such another.”
. . . . . .
The Countess shut herself up in her country house for three whole years without seeing anyone; winter and summer, there she lived, hardly going out of her room. She was waited upon by a mulatto woman who knew of the attachment between Saint-Clair and herself. She scarcely spoke a word to her day after day. At the end of three years her cousin Julie returned from a long voyage. She forced her way into the house and found poor Mathilde thin and pale, the very ghost of the beautiful and fascinating woman she had left behind. By degrees she persuaded her to come out of her solitude, and took her to Hyères. The Countess languished there for three or four months, and then died of consumption brought on by her grief – so said Dr. M***, who attended her.